After the Earthquake

An open Senate seat presents a new landscape for this year's Tennessee elections.



The turmoil unloosed by U.S. Senator Fred Thompson's surprise withdrawal from his reelection race two weeks ago created expectations within Democratic ranks that have since subsided -- with both U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis and (wonder of weekend wonders!) Tipper Gore having ultimately deferred to Nashville congressman Bob Clement, who announced his Senate candidacy this week in Nashville in a ceremony of party unification.

The claiming of first dibs by Clement, who was most senior among available Democrats, was an ironic echo of the orderly way in which Republicans ordinarily arrange a political succession. The GOP, meanwhile, saw itself in the kind of predicament normally incurred by Democrats -- with a primary contest between former Governor Lamar Alexander and 7th District U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant threatening to involve state Republicans in an internecine struggle with moderate-vs.-conservative and insurgent-vs.-Establishment overtones.

At the Shelby County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day Dinner in Memphis last weekend, Bryant contended that Alexander's forces were trying to dry up his fund-raising ability but insisted that he and his conservative supporters would fight on and win against the former governor, who had on his side favorable polls and enough money to begin TV advertisements. "There's something happening in Tennessee," said Bryant, who evoked the image of grass-roots rebellions in East Tennessee and West Tennessee.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Van Hilleary, the 4th District congressman who is still favored over persistent primary challenger Jim Henry, confided his anxiety that the new attention given the Senate race might retard his own fund-raising vis-à-vis his ultimate potential opponent, Democrat Phil Bredesen.

Hilleary, who had not yet reciprocated an endorsement he had received several weeks ago from congressional colleague Bryant, did so in a de facto manner. After suggesting in an interview that Henry's financial support, such as it was, came from sources close to Alexander and Governor Don Sundquist, with whom he disagrees on most matters, Hilleary would introduce Bryant to the Republican throng as one who "will be a great U.S. senator."

Absent from the Shelby County banquet were both Sundquist, who had co-founded the local affair three decades back, and Alexander, who had visited Memphis earlier in the week, collecting endorsements from outgoing Shelby County mayor Jim Rout and others.

Correction and Clarification Ex Parte: State Senator Steve Cohen insists he never "draped his arm" around mayoral dropout Harold Byrd during a multistage encounter between the two that took place at the annual awards banquet of the University of Memphis Alumni Association. The actual chronology of the matter, which was reported here last week as a composite of others' tellings, is as follows, reports the senator (who had earlier declined extended comment):

1) Cohen -- an outspoken supporter of another Democratic candidate, Shelby County public defender A C Wharton -- approaches Byrd and tells him he has done "the right thing" by withdrawing from an unwinnable county mayor's race, which at some point the senator compares to his own 1996 experience in a 9th District congressional race against ultimate winner Harold Ford Jr.;

2) Byrd responds by not turning around to greet Cohen, saying tersely, "You better leave."

3) Cohen withdraws but either seeks out or encounters Jo Tucker, Byrd's sister, whom the senator advises that Byrd has been "rude" to him, and, after declaring that the Bartlett banker isn't handling his disappointment well, suggests he'd be better off avoiding public functions and taking some time off;

4) Shortly thereafter Byrd approaches Cohen, grasps his arm, advises him not to talk to members of his (Byrd's) family, and threatens to "whip [Cohen's] ass." The senator's response, as he recalls it: "If you don't get your hands off me, I'll punch you in the nose."

Clearly, neither threat was realized, so things blew over.

· Byrd's point of view, it should be said, remains unspoken to. The erstwhile candidate remains involved in civic and business matters but is otherwise keeping a low profile and has not been available for comment.

He impressed members of the Phoenix Club, however, when, instead of canceling, he showed up for a prescheduled luncheon talk last week and, members say, discussed the circumstances of the Shelby County mayor's race with candor, precision, and good cheer.

The bottom line: He withdrew because his head told him he couldn't win, and his heart, reluctantly but ultimately, followed.

· Some other antagonists of Sen. Cohen, ideological ones, were in town last week: members of the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance, a lobby formed to fight the upcoming Cohen-sponsored lottery referendum.

The two principal speakers at a press conference at the airport were former ambassador to France Joe Rodgers, who raises significant amounts of money for Republican causes, and former legislator Tommy Burnette, who was described by Alliance spokesperson Michael Gilstrap as being "a liberal by any definition."

In addition to moral arguments, Rodgers and Burnette attacked the assumptions of the lottery from their presumed ideological positions. Among other criticisms, Rodgers said the scholarships promised under Cohen's lottery proposal would require more matching funds from state coffers than could reasonably be afforded under the present difficult fiscal conditions.

Both men conceded that current polls show statewide sentiment to be overwhelmingly in favor of a lottery but -- citing the case of a recently defeated referendum in Albama, where early polls had predicted a win for lottery proponents -- predicted that would change.

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